Phrasing Katrina: Reflections on an (un)Natural Disaster (Part 3)

The emotional and heartfelt reporting during Katrina cannot simply be explained by an encounter with the glaring inequalities that floated to the surface of the floodwaters. Let’s turn to the ferocity of the storm and the physically and psycholoically taxing environment that individual journalists, many of whom were highly unprepared, found themselves in. In Anatomy of Katrina: Crisis Communication and Rhetorical Protocol, Donald Smith describes the breakdown of communication during the storm. He writes that one witness thought it similar to 18th century-like forms of communication, “with runners carrying information to and from the scene of ‘battle’”. At one point he uses the word ‘freakish’ to describe the size and scope of the storm. An article published by the National Press Photographers Association explains that most photojournalists had “never seen a situation like this domestically where the populace has been cut off from the rest of the world and there’s no food and water”.  On August 31st, 2005 the Washington Post reported that NBC crew members and staff had been sleeping in trucks and that many were suffering digestive ailments.

By August 31st many journalists in New Orleans were without phone and e-mail contact with their editors. Journalists who did have satellite phones were reluctant to keep returning to their trucks as the process was extremely time consuming. One might, to some extent, attribute the lack of discretion and the autonomy that some of the journalists demonstrated to the breakdown of communication. NBC correspondent Carl Quintanilla, claims that journalists

“…realized that with our sat phones it was a challenge to simply call New York so we certainly weren’t going to be able to call our sources the way we would a normal story. And so we were only able to point our cameras in any direction, write down what we saw, and a lot of that resulted in what was I think a larger proportion of 1st person reporting than we’ve seen in any domestic story in a very long time.”

One certainly has the sense of grit and roughness when watching coverage from New Orleans during the first week of reporting. A search on YouTube of the most watched video with the key-words ‘reporter’ + ‘Katrina’ yields, tellingly, a video of a reporter slipping and falling on his face.

Both on the ground and in the studio there was a sense that Katrina was different. Pictures, video and audio were sent back to the studios, where news personalities not present in New Orleans had a hard time presenting what they were seeing and hearing in a neutral manner. The LA Times on September 3rd noticed a “shedding of the customary…studied neutrality”.  One thinks of the viral video of Shepherd Smith on FOX’s Hannity and Colmes (see below)


Questioner: Shep, how many people are you talking about on the bridge there? We’ve seen now…the images of the convoys going in and the armed guards going in and the supplies going in, why are they not getting to that specific location?

Smith: I don’t know… [pause]

Questioner: Yeah, but we know for a fact that there is… how many people are there?

Smith: Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. See thing is people don’t know where to go now, they’re not being told where to do. Two days ago I was on that same bridge saying there were thousands of people there then that didn’t know where to go. They went to the superdome, they were told no. the federal government finally stepped up and said no don’t go to the superdome, but they weren’t told where to go. So they sit there. It may be because they’re worried about chaos… There’s no answer. Its one of the first stories I’ve ever covered where questions as simple as why do the people under the easily accessible bridge not get food and water and don’t even get instructions of where to go to get food and water and medical attention. It’s the first time I’ve never known the answer to that and I’m not sure there is an answer to that.

Interviewer: who do you ask?

Smith: I don’t know…

When the interviewer asks Smith about perspective he defends his assertion that not enough is being done by exclaiming “That is perspective, that’s all the perspective you need” . The aspect of the interview that is most alarming is the confusion, the uncustomary pauses and the sheer aggressiveness. The interview almost uncannily cuts to Geraldo Reviera who, despite his showboating, displays the same emotion and aggression, and raises similar issues of perspective. Reviera starts shouting: “Let them [the evacuees who have been in the Superdome for close to six days] walk out of here.” and later, in the same defensive maneuver as Smith, defends his position by exclaiming “its not a question of objectivity, it’s a question of reality”. One has a sense that Katrina altered the way that journalists spoke, if only for a shot time.

Audiences watched Ted Koppel assail FEMA’s Micheal Brown.  CNN’s Soledad O’Brien had his way with Brown as well, demanding to know: “How is it possible that we’re getting better intelligence than you’re getting?”…“Why [has there been] no massive airdrop of food and water? In Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, they got food dropped every two days after the disaster struck”.

But FEMA and the Federal government were not the only issues that journalists were poking and prodding at. Slate Media critic Jack Shafer was one of the first vocalize the glaring racial inequalities. In his column on August 31st he wrote:

“Race remains largely untouchable for TV because broadcasters sense that they can’t make an error without destroying careers. That’s a true pity. If the subject were a little less taboo, one of last night’s anchors could have asked a reporter, “Can you explain to our viewers, who by now have surely noticed, why 99 percent of the New Orleans evacuees we’re seeing are African-American? I suppose our viewers have noticed, too, that the provocative looting footage we’re airing and re-airing seems to depict mostly African-Americans.”

Likewise, on September 2nd, Scot Gold of the L.A. Times described the issues of race, death and frustration in detail, citing a “woman who died in a chair in the middle of the road. Someone covered her with a tarp and left her there” (Fisher, 2005). He described how “water is the enemy… it hides snakes, dead, bloated rats and in the areas with the worst flooding, untold numbers of bloated bodies”. The grotesquerie is topped off by the issue of race. In the September 2nd article, Gold retells counting four white faces amidst a crowd of 23,000 people at the Superdome. Gold and Shafer were not alone in their evocation of race. CNN’s Jack Caferty ended a segment of his show one evening by exclaiming:

“This is the government the taxpayers are paying for, and its fallen right flat on its face as far as I can see, in how its handled this thing. We’re going to talk about something else before the show’s over, and that’s the big elephant that’s in the room, the race and economic class of most of the victims, which the media hasn’t discussed much at all – but we will.”

New words and phrases began to appear, journalists begun using the term ‘refugee’ to describe American citizens, an action that both angered many within the black community and caused others in the community to wonder whether the term was in fact a positive recognition of their suffering.

THE PROBLEM OF PHRASING: We may now be in a better position to articulate what is at issue. Traumatic events and spectacular destructions often transform the familiar into something foreign. As such, we may find it difficult to make the event ‘mean’, and find it difficult to describe it adequately to ourselves and others. In times like these we may adopt new ways of phrasing or we may be reduced to bouts (and sometimes prolonged bouts) of silence or frustration. It has been argued that survivors’ accounts of the Holocaust took so long to be expressed because the survivors themselves adopted a ‘language of silence’. They were unable to communicate what they had experienced within the dominant tropes and phrases. When they did write about the experience their memoirs were often filled with anger, frustration and a fixation on certain grotesque details that haunted their speech for the rest of their lives. In the memoirs that were written, very rarely do we come across an interest in numbers and facts as the emphasis tends to lie more on feeling and emotion.

In The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Jean Francois-Lyotard takes up this point in order to offer an explanation for the phenomena of holocaust denial. He argues that there is a radical disjuncture between the language used by the holocaust denier and the holocaust survivor. For the former the truth of the Holocaust lies in a language of quantification (i.e. how much Zyklon-B was there in the walls of the supposed gas chambers) while for the later the truth of the Holocaust lies in a language of feeling and emotion. In fact, often the experience was so traumatic that many survivors barely remember factual data at all. The question of how many particles of Zyklon-B a chemist determines there to be in a slab of concrete does not mean much to them. This explains the spectacular incidents such as that on the Phil Donohue show in 1992, where David Duke, a well known holocaust denier began to question survivors in a language of quantification. The survivors were unable to answer, not because they did not know, but because for them ‘meaning’ lay not in a positivistic language of quantification but a language of having ‘been there’ and having ‘felt it’.

Lyotard asks: “Suppose that an earthquake destroys not only lives, buildings, and objects but also the instruments of measurements used to measure earthquakes directly and indirectly”. As we have been pointing out throughout this discussion, in the case of Katrina, the usual instruments of description (i.e. the media’s modes / types of coverage) were clearly inadequate. This is demonstrated in the Shepherd Smith interview on Hannity and Colmes where his more conservative minded interviewers attempt to ‘phrase’ their questions in one idiom, while Smith himself is not particularly concerned with speaking through a screen of ‘conservativism’ or ‘liberalism’. We find new ways of looking at issues emerge, ones not necessarily based on partisan politics.  Katrina did not only wreak havoc by killing people and destroying portions of New Orleans. It disrupted the ability for the media to, in Lyotard’s words, report back using tried and tested “quantitative measurements” of what was transpiring.


~ by dccohen on April 14, 2010.

One Response to “Phrasing Katrina: Reflections on an (un)Natural Disaster (Part 3)”

  1. Great reading indeed!!! Well as a So. Calif. tourist trapped in the Superdome I took note and guesstimated about 15% of the population inside was white. I was fortunate though to be smuggled out with a group of mainly white European et al tourists after 3 nights. Still I definitely focus on the feelings (anger, hope, abandonment, frustration) of my ordeal

    Paul Harris
    Author, “Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina”

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